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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Saturday, December 23, 2023

The Real Problems of Higher Ed

 I am not going to try to parse the controversy over Professor Claudine Gay 's resignation from the presidency of Harvard, because she as a person is a symptom, not a cause, of what is wrong in academia.  Neither her relatively modest scholarly credentials nor her public relations approach are in the least bit unusual.  The days when distinguished scholars or scientists ultimately became heads of universities are long gone, and I can't name a single president of a leading private institution or flagship state university who took office with particular new educational goals that he or she wanted to implement.   Our graduate schools seem less likely than ever to turn out groundbreaking young scholars in the humanities or social sciences, and nearly every college in the country suffers from the administrative bloat that makes college unaffordable.  Recently an interesting Wall Street Journal op-ed by President Greg Weiner of Assumption University in Worcester, Mass.--who proudly identifies himself as the first Jewish president of a Catholic college--argues that Jewish students--or, he might have added, any kid with real intellectual ambition--ought to check out certain Catholic colleges like his own, that still dedicate themselves to free inquiry.  Elite institutions, he says rightly, have lost their way.  They cannot easily regain it.  Weiner, in his mid-fifties, appears to be the kind of  historically oriented political scientist who dominated that field in my youth but is very hard to find on the faculties of major institutions today.  He has written books about James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.  He also writes powerful and sophisticated op-eds, one of of which I found here.

I would today like to identify perhaps the single biggest change in the attitude towards what a college education should do over the length of my own academic career, which now spans 58 years.  Until the last fifty years or so, higher education was supposed to turn a young man or woman into a visibly different person by teaching them things they had not known and exposing them to new thinkers.  This included learning new languages, including, for most of the nineteenth century anyway, Latin and perhaps even Greek.   Young humanists immersed  themselves in the politics and the literature of the distant past, and learned new perspectives on politics and on life.  College initiated them into an intellectual elite that had developed itself over the centuries.

Three developments that coincided with my own youth radically changed that attitude.  The first, I think, was the enormous expansion of higher education undertaken to educate my own generation.  While graduate schools were thriving in the 1950s and 1960s, the demand for new faculty rapidly outran the supply of genuine intellectuals who chose that career.  The second was the Vietnam war, which told my generation that it did not have to believe anything that the older generation said.  And the third and perhaps the most influential was the emergence of new groups of female, nonwhite and gay academics who took a different view of what higher education was really for.  Here I have to be very clear about what I am saying.  The women, nonwhites and increasingly out gays who entered academia in the 1960s and 1970s in larger numbers included quite a few, some of whom I knew very well, who were entirely faithful  to earlier traditions and did excellent work.  Others, however, decided for various reasons that our intellectual traditions mainly tended to preserve the supremacy of straight white males, and only served their interests.  The attitude that the traditional curriculum revolved around straight white male concerns persists to this day--and having gone through college in the late 1960s, I think it completely misrepresents how straight white males experienced college.  My Harvard class of 1969 was very well educated in high school but all of us were bowled over during the first term by the amount of work we were expected to do and by the new ideas and concepts that we had to absorb.  That was so true that we were more than happy to receive Bs and even Cs and C+s in some of our courses, as I documented in A Life in History, and accept the Bs as genuinely good grades. 

The new view held that colleges and universities had to change both the composition of their faculties and the subjects they studied to meet the needs of women and minorities--both of whom had been important parts of American  higher education for quite a while.   Those who pushed that view argued that politics, society, and intellectual life had simply reinforced their oppression, and that the university, as the 1962 Port Huron statement said, was the place to begin overthrowing it. Forty years or so later, this view has been institutionalized to suggest that the real purpose of universities is to narrow students' intellectual horizons, instead of broadening them.  They are encouraged--not only in course work, but in freshman orientations and by new bureaucracies--to believe that they should simply be learning more about themselves, their own experiences, and people who "look like them."  That more specifically means studying a new history of oppression that will teach most whites (especially straight men) that they are oppressors while teaching the rest of the students that they are oppressed and have special needs of their own that college must address.  And these ideas have gone further than that now, insisting that even the sciences and professional education must change to "decenter whiteness" and replace their traditions with something new.  

Something else seems to have accelerated these trends in the last twenty years or so.  As bureaucracies and faculties get bigger and colleges get more expensive, they are increasingly beholden to students whom they cannot afford to offend.  That means, among other things, grade inflation--who wants to pay today's prices to get a B?  It means extraordinary sensitivity to student protests, and opposition to anything that might make any particular group of students uncomfortable.  It means more competition among elite institutions for well-off foreign students, another increasing group. It means a great reluctance, now on display, to offend any students among protected groups, who also represent more and more of the student body, especially at public institutions.  And it means that the key decisions for every university--how much to charge and what to spend the money on--are made not by outstanding faculty, but by full-time career administrators bidding in numerous ways for the students who can afford their vastly inflated prices.  In these conditions college faculties cannot do much to hold off the anti-intellectual trends throughout our society--led by the simple decline of reading--that are leaving our western heritage behind.

The western world built up it intellectual tradition by training generations of scholars and teachers to take certain ideas of free inquiry seriously, and immersing them in a continually evolving canon of basic texts.  All of that required dedication and years of work--which the genuine intellectuals among us, whom I have always believed are scattered at random throughout our society, put in largely out of love, not duty.  Most of today's universities deny their students that experience, and that is why those traditions are very endangered species.  Our leading institutions can still rely on their reputation and their role as pipelines into well-compensated professions, and therefore are unlikely to undertake drastic reforms.  Perhaps some smaller institutions--many of which are threatened with financial catastrophe--could make the necessary changs, which could safe money and improve their educational product at the same time.

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